According to certain people in my life, I don’t exploit my feminine charm as much as I should. I guess I’m just one of these women who prefer being appreciated for other qualities, etcetera. But I must admit that on rare occasions, I draw satisfaction from recognizing my physical potential.

Today, jogging in the Luxembourg gardens, I passed a group of firemen in training in front of the Medici fountain. They were placidly listening to their coach until they caught sight of me. Over twenty heads turned. I couldn’t help but flash the young men a smile. Even the coach looked at me as though he’d never seen a woman with bare legs like mine before. Perhaps he hadn’t.

Back home, I made a note to myself: your legs may be of use some day.


I’m re-reading Don Delillo’s Underworld.

The first time I read it, I was twenty-two. I liked it yet thought it was overabundantly American.

I still think that, but now I also think it’s a masterpiece I can never live without.

The difference between these two responses makes me worried about who I was at the age of twenty-two.

I soothe myself with the explanation that I probably missed half of Delillo’s brilliance because of my poorer comprehension of English at the time.

The Era of TV series

We arrived by elevator on a moon-shy night. Two pretty boys in ripped and burned-out T-shirts led us into an anteroom where a doctor was sliding on medical mittens. She was tugging at the latex with her teeth. We were told to strip, leave our scarves, hats and umbrellas on a steaming pile of abandoned garments. The soaked up rain in wool ponchos and trench coats was evaporating; there were high levels of human-radiated heat.

“I’d like to order a hamburger,” a broad man said. He wore a motorcycle jacket and mirrored sunglasses. His hair was black and shiny, shaped into a monstrous crest.
“Just because I’m wearing my uniform, doesn’t mean I’m on duty,” I said, softening the blow with a smile. “Besides, I haven’t seen Lafayette yet. Perhaps he’s not coming.”

We eased into a bustling salon, sealed up in plastic. Faces were stamped with excitement, suspense, kaleidoscopic paints. A zombie offered us a cocktail. Our hands reached out, but we were bushwhacked, bear-hugged from behind by Spartacus.
“Don’t let this corpse bleed you dry,” he warned me, pointing to the dapper vampire at my side.
“Happy Birthday, Spartacus,” the vampire said.

We traded small talk for gifts, eyeing the characters around us. Near the bar, a full-breasted redhead showed off her shapely behind in a tight scarlet over-knee dress. Three guys in bulky sneakers were semi-loafing on canes, debating whether to pop another pseudo-pill; transvestites dotted the dance floor, some allured in low-cut attire, others in checkered tweed suits. I spied a car mechanic, one fat grizzly bear, a state trooper. They weren’t talking.

“Hey Alice, what’s up?” an orange-suited prisoner asked.
“Alice is in Wonderland,” I replied. “I’m her evil twin—packing fairy blood.”

Lady Gaga was turned-up. A man sporting tighty-whities waltzed in, otherwise well-dressed from the waist up. The vampire and I started prancing. Occasionally, I offered him my throat. In between highballs and chitchat, the champagne flowed. When the green surgeon arrived, we knew it was time to quit the joint.

After the age of Almodovar came the year of Disney, and now, the era of TV series. We wondered what Spartacus would opt for next. At least we learned one thing: being mutilated, dead or inhuman doesn’t stop you from having a good time.

Diary of a Bad Year – Coetzee

In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee narrates the story of an elderly writer who meets a young woman in the communal laundry room and asks her to type out his essays. The book itself is interlaced with these essays and the young woman comments on them.

The first series of essays is mostly political. The second series deals with topics like writing, birds and Bach –  often with a personal undertone. The young woman prefers the second series and when I first read the book I disagreed with her: the political essays are far more urgent. After reading the book for the second time, I must agree with her: the humanist essays are far more memorable.

Coetzee about ageing:
“My hip gave such pain that today I could not walk and could barely sit. Inexorably, day by day, the physical mechanism deteriorates. As for the mental apparatus, I am continually on the qui vive for broken cogs, blown fuses, hoping against hope that it will outlast its corporeal host. All old folk become Cartesians.”

Zwarte Piet – or the problem of Dutch Black Peter.

It’s Sinterklaastijd in Holland. Literally this means “The period of Saint Nicolas” – not to be confused with Santa Claus. In reality it’s an excuse for throwing all dietary restrictions out of the window. Children and adults alike are consuming unbelievable amounts of high-sugar and high-fat products like kruidnoten, taaitaai and marzipan. The Easter Bunny with its chocolate eggs can’t even compete.

A big favorite in Sinterklaastijd is the chocolate letter. As the Dutch excel in making things personal and educational, most stores are equipped with endless shelves on which they display the 26 letters of the alphabet – each letter exists in different flavors, so you are not limited to buy someone the first letter of their name, but you can also show that you know them a little by choosing the milk, pure or white variety.

Last week a journalist from Rotterdam brought me one of those letters, and as she had read my novel, in which the main character is a health-and-environmental minded person, she had chosen a Fairtrade version with reasonably pure ingredients. The journalist had assumed (not incorrectly) that my novel contained autobiographical elements, and that I would be happy to receive chocolate that was free of slave-labor and bad additives.

The letter, however, did display a small figurine recognizable as the head of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), and I explained that it would tickle a chuckle out of my American husband, who perceives the Dutch tradition, in which we surround an old white man with dark skinned servants, as rather racist. When my husband saw the chocolate letter, he indeed made a comment, and when he saw me cutting a piece off my C, he asked: “Are you going to eat Black Peter?”
As I had already studied the ingredients of this particular chocolate piece and had noticed the E-nummers, I answered, a little too quickly: “No, I won’t. Too many colorants.”
My husband just looked at me baffled, thinking: “I rest my case”.

Magical thinking

On the ever inspiring TED site, I recently viewed the talk ‘The origins of pleasure’ in which Psychologist Paul Bloom investigates our love of art and wonders why we like an original painting better than a forgery.

In his opinion is has to do with the history of the piece of art that somehow enriches our experience. Human beings are essentialists, he claims, and our beliefs about an object interfere with how we experience it. Before we can fully appreciate something, we need to know what it is, who made it, and where it comes from.

I don’t disagree with his theory, but I think that something is missing. Why do we feel betrayed when we discover that we have been looking at a forgery? Not only because our assumptions were wrong, and we are staring at an object with a different, less interesting, history. It’s also because we are magical thinkers.

When I’m standing in front of a painting in a museum and I observe the details from up close, or when I place my hand (when allowed) on a marble statue, I secretly believe that the genius of the artist is still present in his or her work, and that by approaching it, a bit of that genius might jump over to me. An original work of art could therefore inspire us, as a forgery cannot.

But perhaps we have become too rational to admit to this type of thinking. Being an essentialist is much easier to accept.

Symposium (Jolimont 6)

Or what I took away from the mountain.

jolimontThe evening began with a fire. Under the doubtful eyes of four city men, our sturdy Swiss host constructed a pyramid of twigs. He showed no fear of the rain clouds overhead. Inside the house, eight pairs of hands were busy preparing and when the flames died down, various meats and vegetables were put on the grill. The fumes of smoke circled up in the air as a sign to the valley-people that life up on the mountain was good. Later, during dinner, stories and invitations flooded the tables and when the glasses were empty, our whole party moved up to the floor where the wine bottles were kept.
The evening began a second time in the music room. The host and his father took up their positions from years ago, facing each other across two grand pianos. They communicated in their own private language that was nonetheless understood by all. Later, a guitarist joined and another, and then some timid drumming was added and some even more timid singing. It all became clear that we hadn’t gathered to eat together – it was for the music, that we were there.
The evening began yet again around an antique table. After the musicians had grown tired and we had all gathered around a plate of Azerbejdżanian baklava, the uncle of the Polish hostess suddenly tapped his glass. “We will all speak!” he decided. “One by one. About what it means to be here.” And for reasons that became obvious to me later, he chose me to begin.
Of course I was nervous, put on the spot like that, but fortunately I had written something about the mountain the day before. So I quickly recounted my story about languages, the privilege to hear people compose, and the lingua franca of music. Before I knew it, my turn had passed and a cynical guest surprised me by opening up about the emotions he had felt earlier that night. As the circle continued, the stories became more and more personal. One guest returned to the guitar, a second spoke about the beautiful glimpses of family life he had envied and yet another confessed how much he missed his friends in his new town.
The more the others spoke, the more I regretted my own words. How presumptuous of me to have mentioned that I was a writer and therefore not trained for public speech, how cold of me to have quoted something I had written before, how rude of me to have forgotten to thank the hosts. The evening had turned into Plato’s symposium and my failure was weighing heavily on me: I had forgotten to use the word love!
For a moment I considered asking for a second chance. I had to prove that I was just as warm-blooded and touched as the others, but before I could gather up the courage, the host and hostess took over; they were intentionally chosen by the uncle to be the last to speak. They thanked us for having come to their mountain and expressed the hope that we would all take something away with us when we left. Something that would help us cherish and pursue our own special gifts.
Their words soothed me instantly. I didn’t need to speak eloquently about love; the others had done so already. I didn’t need to be better at public speaking. After all: I was a writer, which was perhaps less of a presumptuous statement than a plain fact. I could write about love anytime I wanted in any words I choose. All I needed to do was to silence my critical self and observe. And so the evening began once more.